Today not all of us, but many, have been raised in a Christian environment; we hear about it on TV and radio; we might have come from Christian homes in a so-called “Christian” nation. So, let’s be honest. We are more in the position of the Jews of Paul’s day than that of the Gentiles. We have at least been exposed to a significant amount of truth. The Jews in Paul’s day had the potential of knowing God, but no, many of them did not know him. Today, many Jews are ignorant of their own history. Even many of those living in Israel are agnostic or atheists. I am not being critical; it is a simple fact.
Many of us are in that condition today. Yet it is also true that many among us come right out of a non-believing environment, such as Paul described: “without Christ . . . utter strangers to God’s chosen community . . . no knowledge of, or right to, the promised agreements . . . nothing to look forward to and no God to whom you could turn” (Ephesians 2:13).
So we should look at how he describes this condition, because, it is not only the condition many of us come from, it is also a state the world is returning as it grows more and more paganized and loses its Christian influence and teaching. Verse 12:
. . . remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. (Ephesians 2:12)
That is paganism. And Paul starts at its highest possible level. The one thing which can be said of all pagans, no matter what their background, is that they are “separated from Christ.” If you haven’t yet come to Christ, you are a pagan. You may have been brought up in a religious home. You may have been trained in civilized disciplines. You may have been exposed to the philosophies of the world. You may even be highly intelligent, very artistic, and in many ways an admirable and enjoyable person. But the one significant fact remains: you are separated from Christ. And my dear friends, without Christ you have no life from God. The life of God is, to be blunt, not available to you. You may know that he exists. You may believe in him. There were pagans in Paul’s day who believed in God. But they did not know or love God. They had turned from the empty worship of the gods of the Greek and Roman pantheons, believed that there was a real God somewhere. But they didn’t know him. And that is so true of many today.
A former co-worker who became a good friend, once admitted that he was an atheist. He did not believe there was any “higher being.” But after working together for seven years, he did acknowledge that “God existed somewhere, but he certainly wasn’t knowable.” Well, that was a step in the right direction.
A few years later, we reconnected at a party we were having for one of my sons who he knew. This friend had been teaching at a local Middle School and asked me to pray for one of his students who was being tormented by some other boys. No, he hadn’t “met [my] God, yet, but trusted that I had” and felt I could help his student.
By the way, I did pray for his student, and my friend later told me that the boys who were tormenting that student he asked me to pray for, were transferred to another school. As he said, “Well, I guess you don’t need to pray for _______” (the boy he asked me to pray for). It doesn’t make sense. Those tormentors were for some unknown reason, suddenly transferred.” My friend couldn’t understand it, but, our Father is faithful!
So, if you merely believe God is real, the highest thing that can be said is this: You are separated from Christ. There is a gap. It may be only a small gap; you may be close to Christ, very close. You may understand and admire his teaching. But until you have come to know and love Him; until you have surrendered to Him, there is a gap which is a death-gap, and you remain “dead in trespasses and sins.” As Paul stated it in the opening verses of this chapter — enslaved under the course of the prince of this world, fulfilling the lusts of the passions of the flesh, a child of wrath, in just the same way as the rest of mankind. That is the best someone can say of a pagan. I am sorry if that offends you. That is not my intention. I am only trying to present you with the Truth.
However, for many, it is much worse, as Paul goes on to describe: “utter strangers to God’s chosen community.” A stranger, a foreigner, living in the midst of a country, who does not have the rights of citizenship. Here Paul is comparing the position of the Jews with that of the Gentiles. The Jews had a nation over which God ruled. They gloried in the fact that God was the head of their country. They had a sense of destiny, a sense of God’s protection, a sense of belonging to a single assembly who were all under the oversight of God. They had a camaraderie, a sense of brotherhood which came from belonging to God, from being his people.
But the unbelievers, the pagans, did not know this. The pagan world worshiped a pantheon of gods, and all of these gods were as irritable and as undependable as men. Their world was exposed to powers they recognized as being greater than themselves, but there was no consistency — and certainly no love. They never thought of God as loving them; never thought of a loving God. The best they could do was to beg for the kindness and mercy of their gods and hoped they could somehow influence them. But there was no sense of belonging to God. The Jews had that sense; but not the pagans. They were aliens from the covenants of the promise. Paul says, “Since you weren’t part of Israel you didn’t have that sense of belonging to God.”
These covenants were the promises, the agreements God had made with Abraham and Jacob and Moses and David and others that He would do certain things. He bound Himself to obey certain provisions if a man would respond to them. So every Israelite had a hope, had a way out if he would take it. They didn’t always do that, but they did have a way if they wanted it.
There were, for instance, the promises which had to do with the sacrifices. Every Israelite knew that if he was burdened with guilt, troubled by having done something wrong, there was something he could do about it: He could bring a sacrifice. God had bound Himself that, if an animal were sacrificed under proper conditions, then the conscience of that individual would be eased. Beyond that, the priesthood was provided to instruct them what was right and what was wrong, what was harmful and what was harmless.
Finally, there were all the promises which had to do with the Messiah. Every Israelite knew that, no matter how bad things got, one day God was going to send a Messiah. And even though the nation forgot God, turned away completely and went off and “did their own thing” like the pagans around them, yet God did not cut them off. He would send a Messiah who, one day, would restore the people again. So the Jew always had the hope of the coming of Messiah.
Oh, but not the pagan. This is the contrast. They had no hope in their darkness. They belonged to their unreliable, irritable gods, and there was no certainty these would ever respond to them in any way. So when they were oppressed, and filled with guilt and shame, and fell into the violence, cruelty, and warfare which obsessed the pagan world, they had no promise of any help, no place they could turn, no hope in the future whatsoever, they were left to their own devices.
Therefore, Paul goes on; their final condition was that “they had nothing to look forward to and no God to whom you could turn.” Archaeologists have dug up first-century cemeteries in various places in Greece and Rome and found many tombstones which bear the Greek or Latin words for “No hope” — no hope in their darkness, no light. As a consequence, in the Roman world of that day, despair reigned supreme. If you read the writings of the Roman philosophers and thinkers of that day, you always find a philosophy of despair, of meaningless existence. There was no sense of purpose in life. Even the most hopeful indulged only in a whistling in the dark. They looked out to the future and saw absolutely nothing significant. Their writings reveal the utter darkness, the emptiness, the hopelessness of pagan life.
You can even see this reflected in the Scriptures. Remember the wistful question of Pilate when Jesus stood before him and informed him that he had come into the world to declare the truth. Pilate responded, “What is truth?” That is the hopeless cynicism of an educated Roman who had learned to despair of ever finding reality. Do you remember the burning curiosity of the Roman proconsul, Sergius Paulus, of the island of Cyprus, when Paul and Barnabas arrived? He heard about those two men, sent for them, and diligently asked them what this teaching was regarding Jesus. He longed to find a way out of the hopelessness of his pagan environment.
The result, of course, is that the pagans were without God, just as Paul says. There was no sense of any presence in the universe greater than man. The Greek thinkers, the scientists of that day, the Roman philosophers, the statesmen, the leaders of the Roman world, all looked out at the universe and saw nothing but an enormous cosmic loneliness — the same way men do today — man alone in a cruel and heartless universe, struggling along, trying to do his best in his feeble way, in his brief day, with nothing lying beyond.
We look back and presume that they entire Roman world was worshiping gods. No, the largest proportion of the Romans and the Greeks did not worship gods; they worshiped nothing. In fact, atheism was widespread throughout the Roman world. They didn’t believe in gods anymore. They went through the forms of worshiping, the same way men do today in many churches, but there was no sense of the presence of God. To them, God was dead, just as he is to many in our day. That is paganism; it has always been that way.
To show you the emptiness of our lives, back in the early 70’s, NASA created a project called “Cyclops” where some brilliant scientists devoted themselves to the search for extraterrestrial life. The project team created a design for coordinating large numbers of radio telescopes to search for Earth-like radio signals at a distance of up to 1000 light-years to find intelligent life. The proposed plan was shelved due to costs. However, the report became the basis for much of the SETI work to follow.
They did all that in the hope — the only hope in their darkness — that they might find a civilization that could solve some of the problems we wrestle with and find some remedies for the insupportable conditions we are living. That, my friends, is how pagan our world has become — drifting back into darkness, loneliness, hopelessness, so that men are grasping at straws, trying to find some way out of the abject despair that grips the hearts of people everywhere in the world today.
It is too sad to think about, when you think of your Christianity. Think of what it is that God has called you out of in Jesus Christ. When you allow Christ to fill your home with Christian love and warmth, its hope, its meaningfulness in the midst of life, the gladness and joy of your family, remember what you would have been without Christ, in the darkness of the paganism that is filling our world.
(I send out messages like this each morning in emails, and if you are interested in receiving them, send me your email address and I will add you to the list: Mail List)
I do thank you for your gifts. It is your faithful and continued support that makes these messages possible.